Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg
A test for your knowledge of TV history: Who was the first major female TV comedy star in America? Who created the first sitcom? Who was the first woman to win an acting Emmy?
The answer to all three questions is Gertrude Berg. As the tagline for this remarkable documentary puts it, she’s the most famous woman in America you’ve never heard of.
Studio: New Video
Film Length: 92 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Audio: English DD 2.0
Subtitles: None (closed captioned)
Discs: 2 DVD-9
Insert: Yes (see “Special Features”)
Theatrical Release Date: July 10, 2009
DVD Release Date: Aug. 24, 2010
The film was directed by Aviva Kempner, who made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, named best documentary by the National Board of Review in 2000. Using archival footage, photographs and interviews with Berg’s descendants and surviving contemporaries (and also cleverly integrating such sources as the Charlie Chaplin film, The Immigrant), Kempner manages to cover Berg’s entire biography. Kempner also includes comments from people strongly influenced by Berg’s work. It’s an interesting group that includes broadcaster Andrea Roane (who grew up in New Orleans and now anchors the news on Washington, D.C.’s WUSA) and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (whose entire Brooklyn family were fans).
Born “Tillie Edelstein” in 1898, Berg was first exposed to performing when she helped her father run a Catskills Mountain resort. An essential element of the business was entertaining guests when rain forced everyone indoors. Tillie wrote and performed skits with the children. While working at the resort, she met her future husband, Lewis Berg, an engineer. When Tillie was eighteen, they married and moved to New Orleans, where Lewis took a job on a sugar plantation.
Lewis was a successful man. Among other things, he helped invent instant coffee, which allowed troops at the front lines in World War I to drink their favorite non-alcoholic beverage. But his wife had ambitions of her own. When they moved back to New York City in the Twenties, she began writing scripts for radio under the name “Gertrude Berg”.
On November 20, 1929, barely a month after the stock market crashed, the NBC radio network broadcast the first episode of The Rise of the Goldbergs, a fifteen-minute show recounting the gently humorous trials and tribulations of a close-knit Jewish family headed by Molly, a wise and warm wife and mother. The name Goldberg was a combination of Berg’s married name and her mother’s maiden name.
Berg had not originally planned to play Molly, but she agreed to do so until a suitable replacement could be found. Before that happened, though, Berg became ill for a week, and Molly didn’t appear. Stations carrying the show received thousands of letters asking what had happened to her. A star had been born.
Berg’s radio show ran for seventeen years, first on NBC, then on CBS, after Berg became one of the broadcast era’s first stars to be the object of a “talent raid”. From 1931 onwards, the show ran five days a week, and Berg wrote almost every script, in addition to producing and starring in the show. Although the Goldbergs were Jewish and immigrant, their problems were those of any family, and the show had universal appeal. One of the fan letters of which Berg was proudest came from a group of Catholic nuns who had given up listening to the radio for Lent. Afterward, they wrote asking if they might have copies of the scripts for the shows they’d missed.
In the late Forties, Berg became intrigued by the new medium of television and approached William Paley, the head of CBS, about creating a TV version of The Goldbergs. Despite her fame and the consistent ratings she’d delivered for Paley’s radio network, it was a hard sell, but Berg eventually prevailed. On January 17, 1949, the first episode was broadcast. It became an instant hit.
The show was broadcast live, and there was no studio audience. The setting was a Bronx apartment, and each episode began and ended with Molly Goldberg leaning out her window and talking to the audience about a product from her sponsor, General Foods. Berg wrote her own ad copy and delivered it in character. She was credited with single-handedly increasing sales of Sanka coffee by 60%.
Because television was brand new, everyone was starting from scratch. It was Gertrude Berg who, as producer and writer, created the basic format for what is now known as the “single camera” sitcom. In relocating The Goldbergs from radio to TV, she exploited the visual potential of the apartment building as a locale. With other people in immediate proximity, you could start a new scene, and create a new dramatic situation, just by having someone walk in the door or lean out a neighboring window and call out, in what became a signature line, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!”
These techniques have become such familiar staples of television comedy that we don’t give them a second thought. But someone had to invent them. Ever since The Goldbergs, city apartment buildings have been a common setting for American sitcoms. (A quick montage of clips from I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Seinfeld and Friends makes the point.) In the early years of The Goldbergs, television pioneers such as Jack Benny and Lucille Ball visited the studios where Gertrude Berg produced her show to watch how she did it, and they paid attention. Her techniques have been copied ever since, evolving with technology. (In the Seventies, for example, “Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Goldberg!” became: “This is Carlton, your doorman.”)
In 1950, Berg won the Emmy for best actress, and The Goldbergs was nominated for best kinescope show. Paramount made a feature film, although, as noted in the documentary, the studio couldn’t resist introducing additional characters who would be considered more “mainstream”. Berg was also a pioneer in merchandising, with a clothing line for housewives, a cookbook and a syndicated advice column.
Then the roof caved in. This was the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Senator McCarthy and the blacklist. Philip Loeb, the popular actor who played Molly’s husband, Jake, with whom Berg enjoyed exceptional screen chemistry, was accused by the publication Red Channels of being a communist. Loeb was no such thing and was eventually cleared of all such charges by the FBI, but not before his career had been destroyed and Loeb was driven to suicide. The accusations against Loeb prompted The Goldbergs’ sponsor, General Foods, to demand that Berg fire Loeb. When she refused, they ultimately canceled the show.
Loeb and Berg eventually agreed that he would leave, and the part was recast. But by then The Goldbergs had been off the air for almost two years, and its former time slot had a new occupant: I Love Lucy. TV had a new queen of comedy, and Gertrude Berg would never again achieve the same level of success she’d enjoyed at the dawn of television.
NBC picked up The Goldbergs, and it continued there until 1955. Never one to sit idle, Berg took her acting talents to the stage, winning acclaim and a Tony award for her Broadway performance in A Majority of One. She took one more run at television in the short-lived series, Mrs. G. Goes to College, which ran on CBS during the 1961-1962 season. Berg continued touring in stage productions for as long as she was able. She died in New York City on Sept. 14, 1966.
Gertrude Berg entertained America for decades and was both famous and popular throughout that time. She appeared regularly on interview and variety shows; examples appear in both the documentary and the supplemental materials. She successfully created a style of comedy that was both broadly appealing and completely free of meanness or cruelty – and as writer-producer Norman Lear notes in a supplemental interview, that’s an achievement almost no one else can claim. According to Kempner’s count, Berg wrote approximately 14,000 scripts during her broadcast career, which must be some sort of record. And she laid foundations for TV comedy on which current writers and performers are still building. Kempner’s documentary is an essential step in restoring the reputation of one of America’s truly influential entertainers.
I saw Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg in a theater, and this is the rare instance where I prefer the DVD experience. Gertrude Berg’s work was created for the home, and everything about it is scaled for the TV screen (which was considerably smaller then). Even with digital enhancements, the archival footage suffers when it’s zoomed to movie screen dimensions. Even watching it on the 4:3 center of my 72" HDTV reveals its limitations, especially with the old kinescopes. Still, these are limitations of the source material, and there is nothing to be faulted in the DVD presentation. The contemporary interview footage is crisp, clean and colorful, without aliasing or artifacts.
The soundtrack is DD 2.0 at the usual 192kb/ps. Contemporary elements are stereo, but they are primarily interviews and there is little to separate between the channels. Most of the soundtrack is from monaural sources, and it does not appear to have been reprocessed for a stereo mix. Fidelity varies depending on the source, but voices are as intelligible as the material will allow. The sound on some of the Goldbergs episode is full of background noise, but given the conditions of the time, we’re lucky to have them at all.
“The Genius of Gertrude Berg”. Kempner wrote this essay after release of the film. It provides a brief overview.
Gertrude Berg recipe. An excerpt from Berg’s cookbook. The cookbook and other merchandise are available from the film’s website. Information is also included for purchase of The Ultimate Goldbergs, the largest available collection of surviving episodes from the TV and radio series, direct from UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Commentary with Director Aviva Kempner. More an annotation than a commentary, Kempner provides what amounts to an alternate voiceover, essentially telling the same story as the film’s various narrators, but often with additional detail and anecdotes, some of which are quite interesting, especially as they relate to the making of the film. The stories relating to her interview of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who appears in the film as a fan, are particularly noteworthy.
Many of the items on disc 2 are the documentary equivalent of “deleted” or “extended” scenes, i.e., additional material that didn’t fit into the finished film but provides additional information, background or “character”.
The Goldbergs (16:9 & 4:3) (55:36). Personal anecdotes about the various actors who appeared on The Goldbergs, related by interviewees who appear in the film. The longest segment is about Gertrude Berg, but all of the principal cast members are included, along with comments from fans. The hidden gem is an account (by Arlene “Fuzzy” McQuade, who played Molly’s daughter, Rosalie) of how Steve McQueen got his first acting job – on The Goldbergs.
Gertrude’s Legacy (16:9) (6:08). Final thoughts by many of the film’s interviewees.
Episodes (4:3). A short excerpt from an episode of The Goldbergs entitled “Pincus Pines” is included, probably because it reflects the influence of Berg’s youthful experience working at her father’s Catskills resort. Three complete episodes are also included: “Rosie’s Nose” (26:20); “Baby Naming” (29:32); and an episode contributed by the Berg/Schwartz family and exclusive to this DVD entitled “Mother-in-Law (29:35). In addition to being the only episode in the supplements to feature Philip Loeb as Jacob, “Mother-in-Law” is notable for being the TV debut of a young actress then known as “Anna Italiano”. Shortly after appearing on The Goldbergs, she would go to Hollywood, where she quickly became famous as Anne Bancroft.
Also included is a 1942 radio episode that is interesting but not particularly representative. It’s entitled Victory Front Presents: “The Goldbergs: The World Tomorrow” and has been obviously tailored to the immediate concerns of the nation at war. It was no doubt included because of the introduction by a Victory Front spokesperson, which gives some indication of the fame and popularity enjoyed by the character of Molly Goldberg during those years.
Guest Appearances (4:3) (17:41).
Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow (12:16). The complete interview with the legendary newscaster; excerpts appear throughout the film.
“Molly Hitchcock” (1:45). A sketch that Berg performed on The Steve Allen Show.
The Ed Sullivan Show (“Hannukah Bush”) (3:38). A holiday recitation.
Aviva’s Goodies (16:9).
“Yoo-Hoo” Kempner Family Outtakes (1:55). In a documentary about a woman whose work was based on family, it seems only fitting that the director should include her own.
Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg Billboard (0:29). A time-lapse video of the film’s ad being posted on a billboard.
Today I Vote for My Joey (20:02). A 2002 short film by Aviva Kempner set among Jewish retirees in Florida on the day of the 2000 election. The film was clearly intended as a protest against the ultimate outcome, but many of the lines have acquired unintended layers of irony in light of subsequent events. (The “Joey” of the title is then-Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman.)
Filmmaker Bio, About Docurama and Credits.
In both her commentary and on the film’s website, Kempner objects that The Goldbergs were omitted from the list of classic TV shows chosen for a 2009 commemorative stamp series issued by the U.S. Postal Service. My first objection would have been the omission of The Jack Benny Show, but Kempner’s point is well-taken, because it seems that everyone has forgotten The Goldbergs. Watch this documentary, and you won’t soon forget Gertrude Berg and her alter ego, Molly. They’re a memorable pair.
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub